natural disasters

When the Waters Recede, Trash Piles Up

The cleanup begins.

A week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, the storm is finally gone. Residents are now returning home to calm neighborhood streets, once again passable without a kayak. The roads are back to normal, but signs of the devastation caused by the endless rains and subsequent flooding are sitting right alongside them, as the water that once surrounded thousands of Houston homes is replaced by all the trash it created on the inside.

There’s a practical reason to move quickly with this cleanup — drying out homes as quickly as possible reduces the risk of mold — and a psychological one. The sooner the remnants of this catastrophe are out of eyesight, the sooner people can begin to put it behind them. “It sucks, but what do you do? You clean up and move forward,” Jerry Shannon, whose home flooded, told NBC News.

Of course, those who can clean up are the lucky ones. At least they’re alive, unlike the 46 people believe to have been killed by the storm. And at least they have a place to clean up, unlike the residents of the up to 40,000 homes that were totally destroyed. But given the amount of work in front of them, it’d be hard to blame these lucky ones for not feeling very lucky at all.

They’ll have to begin by stripping their homes of damaged and contaminated materials, including drywall, insulation, and flooring. Carpets, mattresses, and upholstered furniture will have to go, too. Sure, some of it can be restored, but it’s hardly worth the cost. Books, stuffed animals, and toys can be brought back to life with enough effort, but that’s only if the chemicals and sewage contaminating the flood waters don’t persuade parents to toss them out.

A Houston family’s pile of ruined belongings. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Appliances can sometimes be salvaged, but they must be sanitized and cleaned of gritty deposits first. Small, but vital, electrical components may need to be replaced, a job that’s more difficult, stressful, and time-consuming than driving to Home Depot and buying a new microwave.

Losses at businesses affected by the floods are similar. Walls, floors, and furniture have to be thrown out, along with industrial equipment worth six figures. Then there’s the tangled mess left behind by collapsed bridges and roadways.

It’s impossible at this point to know how much debris the storm will produce, but experts can look at the precedent set by similar superstorms. Hurricane Sandy produced 12 million cubic yards of waste and Hurricane Katrina more than quadrupled that with 55 million cubic yards. Given the size of Houston and the duration of the flooding, there’s every reason to believe Harvey created a bigger mess than any storm that came before it.

Cleaning it up will require time — “years” in the words of FEMA administrator Brock Long — and patience with the giant mounds of trash that will soon begin popping up around the city. To clean up after Sandy, staging areas were created at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways and other areas near the worst of the destruction. The junk was hauled to Staten Island and then taken by barge and eventually truck to landfills upstate. The New York Times described the effort as a “a 24-hour-a-day, military-scale operation.”

Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department began its own operation on Thursday, sending trucks back out to collect household trash and storm debris. On Friday, Mayor Sylvester Turner told CBS News he’s desperate for money to help with the clean up.

“What we are needing from FEMA is an advanced payment on debris removal,” he said. “I would tell you my request is $75 million, as an advance payment just on debris removal. Just for the city of Houston alone could be anywhere from $250-$300 million.”

Two men help remove a refrigerator and other ruined items from a friend’s home in Dickinson, Texas. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In an interview with Bloomberg, Jim Fish, CEO of the trash company Waste Management, said, “[E]very single house on these streets must have 40 yards of trash, debris sitting in the front yard.” He stressed the difficulty of coordinating the pickup of household trash with the hauling off of storm debris, which “could literally fill up an entire truck with one house.”

It’s unclear where all this junk will go (calls to Houston’s Solid Waste Management office were not returned), but the area appears well-equipped to handle it. As Bloomberg BNA notes, the “Houston-Galveston region has 27 landfills, with a total of 34 years of capacity under normal disposal rates.”

If local officials take a lesson from the post-Katrina cleanup, they’ll create temporary landfills to conserve space at the facilities equipped to handle more toxic trash. In New Orleans, “sticks and bricks” sites were set up to gather woody demolition debris in areas that did not protect the groundwater as well as landfills.

A burnt-out house and cars in Corpus Christi, Texas. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Temporary staging areas will also be needed for all the cars, about a million of which have been destroyed by the water. Some of them will be restored and resold, and some will be scrapped for parts, but all of them have to be hauled off the streets and taken somewhere until those decisions are made. After Sandy, that somewhere was a little-used airport on Long Island where 15,000 water-damaged vehicles lined the runway until they could be properly dealt with.

Environmentalists know the hazard this junk poses as it’s carted around the state and stored in makeshift dumps while rules are waived to expedite the cleanup. In New Jersey, regulations limiting operating hours of landfills and incinerators were temporarily eased after Sandy. When residents near one landfill began falling ill, they blamed the junk trucked over from the areas hit worst by the storm.

“In Texas, we were concerned about the lack of regulations before this hurricane and certainly now after,” says Cyrus Reed, conservation director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The lax regulatory structure in the state already puts it at risk, he told Daily Intelligencer, and relaxing those rules even further make Texas especially vulnerable in the aftermath of a disaster such as Harvey.

As eager as everyone is to get the garbage out of their homes, off of their yards, and out of their lives, it’s worth remembering that it has to go somewhere.

When the Waters Recede, Trash Piles Up